Leistikow: Iowa's A.J. Epenesa is ready for his year in the spotlight

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Before he was born, when he was born and every day since, Andrew Jared Epenesa — better known as “A.J.” to fans of the Iowa Hawkeyes — has been gradually and perfectly prepared for the 12 hype-filled months that lie ahead.

Keep reading, and you’ll understand why.

The brightest spotlight of his life is about to hit one of the fiercest pass rushers in college football.

“He’s done his time,” his mother, Stephanie, says. “And now he’s the guy.”

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa led the Big Ten in sacks in 2018 (10.5) and led the Hawkeyes in tackles for loss (16.5), quarterback hurries (8) and forced fumbles (4). He also blocked a punt.

As devoted Hawkeye fans know, guys like A.J. Epenesa don’t come through the football program often. Guys that look like him and play like him go to Alabama or Clemson. The highest-rated recruit of the 20-year Kirk Ferentz era to play a snap for Iowa has lived up to every bit of the hype — even as a second-teamer.

A dominant defensive end with uncommon speed for a man his size (6-foot-5, 280 pounds), Epenesa backed up veterans Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson last season. Coaches opted to use Epenesa in a half-time role — averaging about 30-35 snaps per game (Iowa’s defense was on the field for 64.4 a game in 2018). Their approach was to maximize Epenesa's use on third downs, when he could do what he does best: Disrupt the quarterback.

The result: Epenesa recorded 10½ sacks, the most by a Hawkeye since Adrian Clayborn in 2009, eight QB hurries and four forced fumbles. As a team, Iowa’s 35 sacks were the most in the program since 2002. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten Conference in scoring defense.

And as a part-time sophomore, Epenesa was named first-team all-Big Ten. 

“There were some times where I thought I should be in,” he said as the second week of spring practices begin. “But I knew my time would come. And it’s here.”

A.J. Epenesa wouldn’t be a Hawkeye without a decision made 23 years ago by legendary coach Hayden Fry.

If you know the Epenesa family, you probably know this story. It's one Eppy and Stephanie Epenesa have shared often with their four children — daughter Samantha, now 25; and sons A.J., 20; Eric, 17; and Iosefatu, 12 — to help them understand their roots and appreciate their journeys.

Eppy Epenesa grew up as the youngest of seven children in a poor family in American Samoa, a small U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean. He came to the mainland to play football at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant. There, he and Stephanie met.

After two years playing defensive line at the NAIA level, he was invited to walk on at Iowa. Defensive line coach John Austin told Eppy that if he proved himself during a red-shirt year, he could earn a scholarship.

Even though money was tight and he and Stephanie were raising their daughter, Eppy bought in. He secured a student loan to pay for the fall semester of 1995. After a season in which no scholarship offer came, he asked Fry for a meeting.

Eppy's message to the head coach? "I told him it was time to move on."

He could no longer afford to pay for college. The plan was either to return to Samoa or stay with family in California and seek work. Fry told Eppy (who he affectionately called “Repeat” because his given name is Epenesa Epenesa) that he and Austin would go over his practice film, and he would see what he could do to help. Eppy left.

By the time Eppy got back to his apartment, he had a phone message to return to the football building.

When he arrived at Fry’s office, the entire coaching staff was there. On Fry’s desk were papers offering a full scholarship.

“Probably the most memorable moment of my time at Iowa,” Eppy says.

For a son of a school principal to be on his way to a U.S. college degree after running out of money, it was a life-changing gesture from an iconic coach.

To this day, Eppy reminds others of what he went through to reach that moment. The Samoan-to-English dictionary he used to master the language. The side jobs he performed to make sure had enough to eat.  

He also tells about all the people that helped him along his journey, like Kevin and Paula Hoenig of Mount Pleasant who he calls his “Iowa parents.” Friends like Tim Dwight (his first roommate at Iowa) and Jared DeVries (the inspiration for A.J.'s middle name).

Epenesa played two years of defensive tackle for Fry (1996 and 1997). He got that degree. And in September 1998, he and Stephanie had their first son.

When they got to the hospital in Kansas City (where they were living at the time), the doctor that delivered A.J. happened to be a die-hard Hawkeye fan named Michael Magee.

What are the odds?

Young A.J. seemed destined to be a Hawkeye.

The Samoan culture preaches a life of humility, respect and family.

Eppy explains that small disciplines can make big differences in fostering these qualities in children from a young age.

Always say "please" and "thank you."

Always take your shoes off in someone else’s house.

When you’re passing by someone, say, "Excuse me."

Never cuss around an adult.

Talking back isn't tolerated. Children are taught to obey and respect their parents; younger siblings must obey their older siblings.

At meals, grandparents are served first. Then parents. Then the girls. Boys get the leftovers.

“My parents raised me to be very respectful of my elders,” A.J. says. “That’s where I learned to cherish the moment, my loved ones, my family."

That love and respect carries to his coaches at Iowa.

It's been written often that Epenesa arrived in Iowa City without a five-star ego.

“You don’t get that skill set often,” says his position coach, Kelvin Bell. “More rarely is to find that type of skill set with that kind of temperament.”

As impressive as leading the Big Ten in sacks as a sophomore was how Epenesa deferred to his older teammates. He understood what coaches told him about waiting his turn. They felt he wasn't equipped as a young player to stop the run like Hesse and Nelson could.

“I wanted to be respectful. I wanted to learn from those guys," he says. "Because I knew they were good."

Practicing patience was nothing new for Epenesa.

Even though his friends were playing football as early as age 5, he had to wait until fourth grade.

“He begged and begged forever to play football,” Stephanie says, “and we finally let him.”

A.J. Epenesa is flanked by his mother, Stephanie, and father, Eppy, following a 2018 open practice at Kinnick Stadium.

Epenesa grins as he remembers how good it felt the first time he tackled another boy.

From a young age, he was physically imposing. His love of hitting plus high-level teaching at home became an unstoppable combination.

“I was a lot bigger and faster and more athletic than everybody. But I also knew the moves, because of my dad,” Epenesa says. “I was swim-moving, spinning. I was dipping and ripping. Clubbing. I was doing all that in my first year of football. It was unfair.”

(It sounds like it’d be fun to watch, though.)

In high school, his recruitment exploded at age 15 after he was named defensive line MVP at a Nike camp in Chicago. He chose Iowa, a place that meant the world to his family, instead of glamour programs like Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma or USC.

At Iowa, he feels a family connection, even 4½ hours away from his parents in Edwardsville, Illinois.

“I’ve got things here I’m blessed to have. I’m trying to live in this moment and just enjoy all this,” Epenesa says. “I mean, they feed me. I get to work out here. I get to play football.”

One last story from Eppy helps frame A.J.’s appreciation for his NFL opportunity ahead.

It’s sort of heartbreaking to hear how Eppy Epenesa’s pro football hopes fizzled.

While battling through an injury after college, tryouts were tough to come by. But he finally landed one with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The first leg of his flight from Kansas City landed in St. Louis, but he was grounded there after a major storm canceled all flights. He missed the tryout. His only NFL chance had evaporated.

Still, his agent landed him a deal to play in the Canadian Football League with the British Columbia Lions. Just as he was about to fly north to make the signing official, the team changed its mind.

“They probably found out I was hurt. So they cut me and signed another kid,” Eppy says. “And that was it.”

With the football dream over, being a Dad became his primary focus. He worked as a baker for Hy-Vee. Soon, he and Stephanie moved their two kids back to Edwardsville, where her family could help out.

Eppy stops to laugh at the irony of his current job. He works for Southwest Airlines at the St. Louis airport … sometimes finding himself walking through the same terminal where his NFL dream died.

Iowa's A.J. Epenesa (94) celebrates after returning a fumble for a touchdown in the first half of a NCAA college football game against Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Champaign, Ill.

Yet his voice is filled with happiness as he speaks about that experience. He appreciates the journey, not the outcome.

And that’s exactly how his son is treating the hype train to come.

A.J. Epenesa is projected as a high first-round draft pick if he turns pro after his junior season. At a premium NFL position, the idea of passing up millions would be hard to fathom. Odds are, his Iowa career will be over by early January.

But he's not saying that. As you might imagine, Epenesa says he's more concerned with the current moment; with improving every area of his game. He wants to be the type of leader for others that Hesse and Nelson were for him.

“I try to enjoy things while I have them,” he says. “I don’t know why I would want to think about the NFL while I’m here."

Epenesa truly understands from his father’s story that he can’t take anything for granted. He also understands that the spotlight has arrived. It's going to be bright. He'll probably be on preseason all-America teams this summer. Then the season, where he'll face constant double teams. He'll hear his name mentioned as a future NFL star.

As a human being, he's clearly grounded. As a player, he's no doubt ready to take off.

“Everything I’ve ever wanted," he says, "is coming my way."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.